Will Autonomous Vehicles Be Accessible to People with Disabilities?

Thanks in part to the Silicon Valley hype machine, it’s no longer difficult to imagine a car tooling down the street without a driver behind the wheel. But have you seen a rendering of a driverless car that can accommodate a person with a wheelchair? Or a guide dog?

Autonomous vehicles have the potential to offer many significant benefits to cities, from reducing auto crashes and traffic congestion to opening up more space for parks, bike lanes and transit corridors. However, they could be especially transformative for one group of people in particular—those who can’t drive.

In the United States, nearly one in every five people, or more than 57 million, has a disability. Of those, some six million currently have difficulty getting the transportation they need. That includes deaf people, blind people, and those with physical mobility issues that require the use of a wheelchair. Additionally, more than one in five elderly Americans can no longer drive. Meanwhile, the population of U.S. residents over the age of 65 is expected to skyrocket from 40 million to 88 million by 2050.

If self-driving cars will one day be rolled out on a large scale, it only makes sense to design and build them with these millions of Americans in mind. Earlier this year, a group of disability advocates—including the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, National Center for Aging and Disability, and Independent Living Research Utilization—met to discuss the state of autonomous vehicles and what the evolution of self-driving technology might mean for people with disabilities.

The group offered several suggestions for automakers, tech companies, regulators and other self-driving stakeholders to help ensure the benefits of AVs are accessible to all—especially to non-drivers who might stand to benefit most from these technological advances.

Designing Vehicles and Hardware with Adaptive Uses in Mind

Automakers can help ensure autonomous vehicles are accessible by taking the needs of disabled riders into consideration early on when designing and building self-driving cars, especially Level 4 and 5 vehicles (high automation to full automation) that may look less and less like the cars we know today. Possible alterations include:

  • Designing vehicles with lower floors to accommodate wheelchair users
  • Including wheelchair lifts or ramps, or providing support for similar aftermarket modifications
  • Providing accessible door handles, securement options and storage spaces (including those large enough to stow a wheelchair)

01. November 2017

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